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The Eighth Commandment: Theft for a Good Cause?

Part of a series on the Ten Commandments.

By Neil Dhingra

In Alex Gibney’s The Inventor, a documentary about Elizabeth Holmes, the turtlenecked and deep-voiced founder and erstwhile CEO of Theranos, now indicted for wire fraud and conspiracy, the psychologist Dan Ariely explains that Holmes is a “cautionary tale” of someone with “good motives” led astray, perhaps by the Silicon Valley ethos of fake-it-until-you-make-it. To illustrate, Ariely recounts a psychology experiment in which subjects were each given a die, told that they would be given the monetary amount corresponding to the top or bottom side — they picked ahead of time — and were instructed to throw. Only afterwards, they’d be asked which side they had chosen. Predictably, the subjects were very lucky. Then, they were subjected to a lie detector test. In a second stage of the experiment, they were told that the money would go to a charity. The subjects cheated more. Further, the lie detector test could no longer catch the telltale signs of deceit. The subjects had cheated without any tension or anxiety about their actions. The stress had disappeared; they’d convinced themselves.

We, like Elizabeth Holmes, may be willing to commit fraud if we can tell ourselves that we will remain good people and it’s for a good cause. In other words, stealing does not always appear to be a shadowy activity that is obviously wrong, shameful, and self-interested, like putting candy in one’s coat pocket at a convenience store or entering an invented number on a tax form. Dan Ariely even suggests that altruism can prove a “strong motivator” for cheating. But the eighth  commandment, “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:19), is directed against even this other sort of theft — that is, when we steal because we want to change the world. To be sure, Scripture links stealing with false witness (see Lev. 6:2-3). But beyond that, the eighth commandment also warns us against the form of fraud that Holmes may have committed: cheating for a good cause and without evident stress.

In Ariely’s words, Holmes and others in her milieu overconfidently set “post[s] really far,” set bars really high, without being “sure if you can get there.” The strongest argument for Holmes might be that fraud sometimes does let you (eventually) “get there” and may be a necessary step towards innovation. In other words, Thomas Edison did it, and we now have the light bulb. (In an interesting feminist take, Virginia Heffernan suggests that Holmes’s self-destructive claim that you can “make something work, no matter what” may have been necessary to overcome a young woman’s very real “fear of being doubted.”) But even if overconfidence, exaggeration, and fraud have had their benefits, there is a serious drawback.

It appears that Elizabeth Holmes was playing a role. The journalist John Carreyrou has noted the phenomenon of the “all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs,” with black turtlenecks, a possibly-affected deep voice, stories of an astounding work ethic, four hours of sleep, meals taken at the desk. This clearly was the person who would save lives with a quick and relatively painless new blood test. That role, however, demanded a form of what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “compartmentalization,” in which one finds oneself in a consuming sphere of activity, lacking a place (conveniently, often enough) from which to step back to examine it from an external standpoint.

Theranos seems to have been just such a sphere — glass-enclosed, centered on its fascinating founder and CEO and her vision, increasingly marked by a safeguarding culture of secrecy and fear, nondisclosure agreements, employee surveillance, aggressive legal practices, and Indian workers on H-1B visas who’d feel unable to dissent. Tellingly, there was no space for critical reflection on all this, even as investors were misled, patients dangerously misdiagnosed, and a former chief scientist killed himself. (When Holmes was informed of the suicide, she did not call back.) It was always, everyone was assured, led by a good person and for a good cause. Theranos’ technology to perform an astounding range of lab tests, including thyroid hormone and cholesterol levels, from a small sample of blood was always going to work.

The eighth  commandment is directed against any optimistic shutdown of practical reasoning. The commandment is directed toward all, with no regard for status, even for would-be innovators. In contrast, as David L. Baker notes, the Middle Assyrian Laws punished women much more harshly than men; Roman law treated a poor thief differently (crucifixion) from the provincial extractions of politicians (permitted). But the commandment even applies to a king, who should not “exalt himself above other members of the community” (Deut. 17:20), even if, as Samuel warned, ancient kings tended to see themselves as entitled to fields, vineyard, olive orchards, grains, and donkeys (1 Sam. 8:14).

Further, the commandment also prohibits what Baker calls indirect theft, among which he categorizes dishonest marketing techniques. “Do not have two differing weights in your bag — one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house — one large, one small,” Deuteronomy warns (25:13-4). This presumably applies to what Dan Ariely calls “graphs of growth” that predict the future with strangely specific numbers to credulous investors. Such bring ruin, if not wire fraud indictment.

The commandment, which God “spoke” (Ex. 20:1), is meant to create an ineradicable space for critical reflection on all our practices, overconfident and otherwise, especially those we judge to be good. That space is based on the acknowledgement that, as God says, “the land is mine” (Lev. 25:23). It remains God’s even when we are throwing dice for charity or sure to invent a lifesaving medical device post-fakery. Such a space creates a healthy spiritual detachment from all our dreams and fascinations: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…” (Matt. 6:19).

Neil Dhingra is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.


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